Arriving in Taipei in a drizzle only added to its aura of greyness. Even when the sun shines (and it hasn’t much so far) it appears slightly dingy and down-at-heel. Many of the houses and apartments are tiled, once white, now grimy and dirty. But the people are wonderfully friendly, welcoming and smiling, even if they dont speak much English. As a Taiwanese colleague says, ‘in Taiwan, its not about what’s on the outside, but what’s on the inside’. A big contrast with Singapore’s perfunctory and controlled politeness and pristine buildings.
Had to pack an awful lot into the weekend. Up early (not early enough as it transpired!) to visit the National Palace Museum, which contains treasures from China which were transported around the mainland by various rulers from the Ming and Qing dynasties to prevent them falling into enemy hands; then back to Nanjing to escape the Japanese invasions, before finally being sent to Taiwan in 1948 for safekeeping from the advancing communists. But the invaders from the mainland are back in force, to see what Taiwan has ‘plundered’ from their heritage and also, we were told, to see ‘how the other half live’. It was almost impossible to see the exquisite ancient jade, porcelain and intricate ivory carving for the hordes of tour groups, each led by a flag-waving Führer, complete with megaphone linked to all members of his/her respective groups. What a cacophony of sound, what pushing and shoving, what trampled toes, what lack of apology! WAH!
And this was the pattern for the whole weekend: whether in the Holiday Jade and Flower Markets – this time Taiwanese enjoying their two favourite hobbies – collecting jade and buying plants;
or visiting the hot springs via the crowded yet cool MRT, emerging into the baking hot and steamy Xin Beitou suburb, where the best show in town was the 100th birthday celebrations of a local man, complete with dragon dancing,
kung fu demos and and speeches (we didn’t hang around for those as we were expiring from heat and lack of food).
Another strange crowd phenomenon in Taipei is the daily queue at the Sheraton for ‘afternoon tea’. Hundreds – yes hundreds – of people snake through the main hotel lobby (this is the busiest hotel I have ever stayed in, throngs of people, like a railway station) in order to partake of the daily buffet tea; a real aspirational activity here.
Not as strange as the Japanese businessmen’s whisky drinking ceremony we witnessed the other night: bottles of Chivas Regal lined up, waiter pours over ice, then adds distilled water with the finesse of a Japanese geisha, and gives it all a swizzle. Stranger still was the abrupt end to the evening when all the men bowed and departed, leaving untouched whisky on table! Vat a vikid vaste as my Czech grandma would have said. I digress..
And on Sunday, yet more crowds as we went with 50 other tour buses (90% of tourists in Taiwan come from the PRC) to visit the Yehliu Geopark, a collection of unusual but not scintillating rock formations regarded as a great national monument by the PRC tourists. We arrived in the middle of a thunderstorm and it was a sea of umbrellas as afar as the eye could see;
nothing deters the mainland tourist! or us Brits for that matter…
The ‘attractions’ are individually named after prosaic everyday objects – BBQ chicken drumstick; fairy shoe; ice cream rock; candle rock; pineapple rock and so on.
So it was with relief that we were transported to the Ju Ming Museum by our tour guide – supposedly English-speaking but only on the subject of tennis, as he was a pro when he wasn’t driving us. Our tour therefore had a magical mystery element as the booking confirmation was all in Chinese and we had to deduce where we were going by consulting the map. Just as we arrived somewhere we would be told where we were!
‘Two and half hours’, he gesticulated, showing us a watch. Dismayed as it seemed a long time, we were soon delighted and absorbed by this homage to Taiwan’s foremost artist whose pieces de resistance, you might say, are life-size figures cast in bronze from a polystyrene sculpture, mainly military in form – armies in battalions, fighter pilots and navies
(to celebrate Taiwan’s escape from Communism perhaps?) but also reflecting Tai Chi, what he calls the ‘Living World’ plus some marvellous sandstone sculptures, metal installations, from figures to a vast ship complete with navy in attendance. His collage paintings reminded me of Louise’s work for the London College of Fashion. How she would have loved it. How I wish she could…
The best thing was that it was almost empty, completely devoid of tour buses, probably because it was up a very steep and windy road.
From there to the northern tip of Taiwan and a windy wander round to the Fugui Point lighthouse, where I was surprised to find wild lilies growing.
And then to my great surprise and delight, we visited Tamsui, where I had in fact wanted to go on the weekend but had been over-ruled! Easily reachable by MRT, it was in fact simpler to be driven there, and we very much enjoyed visiting the ancient Portuguese Santo Domingo Fort, which changed hands variously along with Taiwanese fortunes, between Dutch, Japanese and British; and the handsome nineteenth-century British consulate, complete with original furniture.
But best of all we loved promenading together with most of Taipei taking their Sunday sea-side outing, watching the food being served fast and furious, the families enjoying ice creams, the proud dog-owners with their handbag pooches (very ‘in’ at the moment) and even larger varieties such as this extraordinary beast – is it a lion we wondered? Everybody laughing, good humoured, but bustling!
You may have noticed, no mention of the culinary delights (and very yummy food here!) – that deserves a blog all on its own, and will come at the end of our stay!